ISD watching social media, gaming platforms for terror-related activity

18 Jul 2021

Straits Times, 18 Jul 2021, ISD watching social media, gaming platforms for terror-related activity
The online platform Roblox, popular with young gamers who assume avatars and play games similar to Minecraft, looks like any other online resource. But tucked behind the building blocks and make-believe scenes are advocates of far-right ideologies seeking followers.

With children spending an inordinate amount of time online, especially on gaming, security observers are concerned that extremist groups may be espousing propaganda and indoctrinating young recruits through online platforms.

The Internal Security Department (ISD) said it is aware of the insidious activities and has been monitoring video gaming platforms and social media for extremist activity here.

Responding to queries from The Sunday Times, the agency, which looks after national security here, said that the authorities have also blocked access to online extremist content in Singapore.

"ISD is aware that social media and video gaming platforms have been abused for recruitment and propaganda purposes by far-right and other extremist groups," said a spokesman.

"Where feasible, the authorities can block and have blocked local access to online extremist content to minimise exposure to our local population."

A major report that ISD released late last month flagged far-right extremism as an emerging threat in Singapore.

Such radical behaviour, which espouses racial supremacy and anti-Islam and anti-immigration ideologies, has emerged as a major concern overseas. It is also the fastest-growing threat in some Western countries, noted the ISD in its biennial Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report.

While there is no indication that far-right extremism has gained significant traction here, ISD said there has been a growing number of far-right radicalisation cases overseas, especially among youth.

"The case of the 16-year-old shows that Singapore is not immune to this emerging threat. Public awareness of such threats is critical to enabling early reporting to the authorities," it said.

It was referring to Singapore's first case of far-right extremism, which saw a 16-year-old Christian Singaporean student detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) last December for plotting to attack Muslims at two mosques here.

The teenager is the youngest person here detained under the ISA and the first detainee to be influenced by far-right extremist ideology.

He planned the attacks to mark the anniversary of the 2019 mass shooting in New Zealand in which 51 people were killed by an Australian white supremacist.

Research fellow Muhammad Faizal Abdul Rahman, from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' Centre of Excellence for National Security, said that radical groups understand the popularity of gaming among youth.

"For example, far-right extremists in the West understand the popularity of gaming among young people, and thus used group chat apps and forums that are popular among gamers to reach out to them. This is quite similar to how ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) had used music and video games to influence young people," said Mr Faizal, who specialises in counter-terrorism.

Recruiting online
Users of Roblox and other online games, as well as parents, have been actively alerting developers to far-right content, and accounts with such content have been promptly deleted. But reports in the United States show that new ones mushroom just as quickly.

Communication and technology professor Lim Sun Sun from the Singapore University of Technology and Design said it is not possible to completely block access without cutting off all local access to entire platforms.

Professor Lim said that far-right and extremist groups are resourceful in seeking alternative platforms to project their influence. Filtering, blocking or restricting content will always play "catch up" to some extent, she added.

"They are essentially exploiting young people's online gaming culture to target a large and impressionable audience. Gamers tend to develop a rapport with other players over time, and this can help recruiters from these far right and extremist groups win the trust of young people whom they seek to influence and ensnare," she said.

The anonymity of the online gaming environment makes interacting with new people and radical ideas appear less intimidating, she said.

The ISD said that whether it is far-right extremism or other forms of radical ideologies, such as those propagated by terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the use of violence is promoted against those perceived as "enemies" or "threats".

Another commonality observed is the prevalence of the Internet as a medium of radicalisation.

"Those who fall prey to extremist ideologies are often first introduced to the radical ideas online, and as they conduct further research that affirms their beliefs and seek out like-minded people in online chat groups or platforms, they progress further down the path of radicalisation," said the department.

Ms Susan Sim, senior research fellow at The Soufan Centre, a non-profit centre with expertise in global security challenges and foreign policy matters, noted that extremists ground their ideology in actual grievances, which make them convincing to the people they are trying to recruit.

She said: "Extremist narratives 'work' because they are grounded in grievances, perceptions and conspiracy theories that many of their target audience actually believe to be true. They recruit by exploiting feelings of anger, humiliation, resentment or lack of purpose."

ISD said the ethno-religious chauvinism and anti-immigration nativism expounded by far-right extremist groups in the West have found resonance in South-east Asia.

It gave the example of groups in the region that have borrowed the far right's racialist rhetoric to promote the idea of racial superiority and oppose the presence of other ethnic groups or immigrants.

"Such narratives, if imported into Singapore, are detrimental to our multiracial and multi-religious context," the department said.

Mr Faizal agreed, saying that Singapore could see more far-right influences slipping in as the threat grows overseas, given how the Republic is a cosmopolitan country and well connected.

"Social media users in Singapore could access alternative social media platforms such as MeWe and Parler, which are popular among far-right supporters in the West."

Digital literacy
The inaugural Global DQ Index Report, released in 2018 by global think-tank Digital Quotient Institute, found that children in Singapore spend 35 hours a week glued to their screens, three hours more than the global average, with most of the time spent watching videos and playing games online.

ISD described key approaches to protect youth from extremist influences.

These approaches include building up digital literacy, critical thinking skills and a firm understanding of the threat of online radicalisation.

Publicly addressing and acknowledging such threats contributes to this process as well, said the department, adding that it has shared information about online radicalisation in its report. But a whole-of-society approach is also needed.

"ISD will also continue to work with schools, institutes of higher learning and community partners to reach out to students and youth to strengthen their resilience against extremist influences," the department said.

Mr Faizal said that to bolster Singapore's defences against far-right extremism, the authorities could ensure that digital literacy programmes include lessons to raise awareness on negative influences that can spread through social media platforms and forums that are less regulated than Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.

Just like how youth are taught to be wary of recruitment into secret societies, Singapore needs to stress to them that online platforms are also used by far-right and extremist groups to recruit members, said Prof Lim.

She is part of the Media Literacy Council, which promotes responsible and safe Internet use here and organises events and campaigns to beef up digital literacy in youth.

"They should be conscious of other players who may have particular radical agendas they wish to advance, and consult a trusted adult if they are confused or troubled by interactions with other players," she said.